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In flood-stricken area of Italy, residents fear this won’t be the last of it

May 20, 2023 Updated Sat., May 20, 2023 at 5 p.m.

Gaia Pianigiani and Elisabetta Povoledo New York Times

LUGO, Italy — When floods hit in this northern Italian town this past week, overflowing a local watercourse and sending water gushing into streets and the surrounding fields, Irinel Lungu, 45, retreated with his wife and toddler to the second floor of their home.

As rescue workers navigated submerged streets in dinghies to deliver baby formula and rescue older people from their homes, the couple watched in the cold as the water rose higher and higher.

Downstairs, the “water was up to my chest,” he said Saturday, adding, “We had nowhere to go.”

Relief has not yet come to some parts of Lugo and other northern Italian towns that were inundated with floods in which 14 people died and thousands were rendered homeless. Swelled rivers and canals have submerged vast swaths of the countryside. Hundreds of dangerous landslides have paralyzed much of the area. And some landlocked towns in the mountains are completely isolated, essentially reachable only by helicopter.

On Saturday, as rain fell again, residents around the ancient city of Ravenna — once the capital of the Byzantine Empire — were facing the deluge while receding waters in some of the hardest-hit towns revealed warped and waterlogged furniture piled next to broken kitchen appliances. Soaked sofas sank into the mud. Bottles of olive oil and canned goods, covered in mud, lined the streets. A car, lifted by the rushing water, teetered precariously on a garden fence.

The floods have upended tens of thousands of lives in the region, Emilia-Romagna, as exceptional weather in some areas brought about half the typical annual rainfall in 36 hours. And experts say it may no longer be so exceptional.

Extreme weather events have become more commonplace in Europe, from the violent storms and raging floods that killed dozens in Germany two years ago to the scorching temperatures that set records in a normally temperate Britain in July. Italy has suffered its own fair share of extreme events, caught between bouts of extreme drought that parch towns, cripple agriculture and dry out the country’s breadbasket, and then torrential rains and floods such as those of this past week.

The extremes make for a brutal cycle in which hillsides stripped of trees by summer wildfires, and lands desiccated by drought, fail to absorb rainfall — in this case biblical amounts of it. The pattern could leave millions of Italians surrounded by water now, but, in the summer, thirsting for a drop.

Last summer, the land was so dry “that you could see cracks,” Roberto Zanardi, 59, who lives in the Lugo area, said with exasperation as he pointed at submerged pear and persimmon groves around him Saturday. “Look at them now.”

Italy’s leaders are trying to come to terms with what scientists say is the new normal of climate change, but some lawmakers are asking whether the country missed opportunities to better prepare for the extreme flooding that many saw coming and to protect the country with artificial basins or other solutions.

“Let’s get it into our heads that we live in an area at risk and that the process of tropicalization of the climate has also reached Italy,” Nello Musumeci, the country’s civil protection minister, said in an interview this past week with La Stampa, a newspaper based in Turin, in northern Italy.

“In the agendas of all governments over the past 80 years, the fragility of our territory has never been a truly priority issue,” he said. “The question to ask is not whether a disastrous event like Tuesday’s will happen again, but when and where it will occur.”

Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni announced Saturday that she would cut short her trip to Japan, where she has been participating in the Group of 7 meeting, so she could visit the flooded areas Sunday and lead the response to the emergency.

“Frankly, I can’t stay so far away from Italy at such a difficult time,” she said at a media briefing. “My conscience requires me to come back.”

The flooding resulted from what experts described as a perfect storm of bad weather, already-saturated soil from storms earlier in the month and high seas.

Heavy rainstorms settled over a large area of Emilia-Romagna for a considerable period of time, pushed by fronts and blocked by the Apennine Mountains.

A storm in the nearby Adriatic Sea trapped the water on the lower-lying plains.

Rivers, streams and canals overflowed and, in some cases, eroded their embankments, in an area that is one of Italy’s most at risk for flooding. Soil that was dried out from months of drought struggled to absorb that water.

On Saturday, along the banks of the Santerno River in Emilia-Romagna, workers operated a crane to demolish a two-story building after water broke through the river’s 33-foot-high embankment, engulfing the structure and stripping away its facade, which had landed in a field across the road. It was left lying next to several cars and patches of torn-up and washed-away asphalt.


Andrea Burattoni, a 48-year-old farmer who lives on the street, looked on as the crane slammed against the walls, gradually revealing the remains of what was once a home. Bed frames, kitchen furniture and a cabinet of sports trophies tumbled to the ground. The owner, an older resident, had been evacuated by his family as the waters rose.

Yet, Burattoni and his family were staying put, despite the fear they felt when water swelled through the fields.

“The roar was deafening, like the earthquake,” he said, referring to the temblors that in 2012 devastated the region. On Saturday, he surveyed his fields where he grew peaches alongside vineyards, buried under muddy brown water. “The roots are not breathing — it’s like if they were covered by a plastic tarp,” he said. “It’ll take weeks for the water to drain, but the season is gone.”

Experts say that much of the world can also expect more unusual and severe storms as the globe heats up, increasing the urgency for action to protect communities.

Barbara Lastoria, a hydraulic engineer at the Institute for Environmental Protection and Research, in Rome, said the debates over water management that emerged this past week because of the flooding meant little if the larger, and existential, issue of climate change is not addressed.

“The rise in temperatures leads to the development of extreme phenomena like droughts and flooding — they are two sides of the same coin,” she said. “Rising temperature is like gasoline in the engine of extreme phenomena: It has to be dealt with first.”


For some, the flooding was cause for relocation.

Claudio Dosi, 46, a welder in Sant’Agata sul Santerno, said he was contemplating moving away after his parents were evacuated to a local sports center when their home filled with water. “I am not sure we have a future here,” he said.

Others did not want to budge.

Lillia Osti, 77, said she had been living in the same home, surrounded by fields of wheat and pears northwest of Lugo, for 60 years. Flooding was not unusual in that low-lying area, she said, although the waters had never before inundated “our ground floor onto the furniture.”

Around her, family members removed rain-soaked doors so that they could dry. “This is not normal, but as long as we are alive, we will rebuild,” she said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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